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Every member of the AFC South is attempting a major overhaul in their team identity in some way in 2021. The success or failure of each of the four NFL franchises within the division will be determined by whether or not these transformations make them more than they appear on paper.
Key Player: Head Coach- Dave Culley
Player to Watch: Wide Receiver – Nico Collins
Record in 2020: 4-12
The Texans’ transformation actually started in the previous offseason when they traded wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins to the Arizona Cardinals in a confusing move. To make matters worse, superstar defensive end J.J. Watt also sought greener pastures in the deserts of Arizona.
Meanwhile, Deshaun Watson had an MVP caliber season in 2020 and is on the field during camp despite his legal troubles. The touted field general currently has an unpredictable timetable should he even return to the team as the starter. And that’s not even considering his very public trade demands that came before the legal issues. So what now?
With Tyrod Taylor as the presumed starter under center and the main veteran receiver being Brandin Cooks, many have suggested that the Texans run the ball. They were 31st in rushing last season because of their lackluster line and playing from behind for 33 minutes per game last season.
However, ESPN 97.5 Houston’s Patrick Creighton did mention a positive going into the season: The opportunity for their 3rd round pick Nico Collins to put in some production.
“Nico Collins should get a lot of reps,” said Creighton during our interview. “This is a guy who can be a real deep threat. He can win contested balls.” He also stated that he is confident that Collins could be the #2 wideout on the roster.
This should help Cooks see more single coverage and give Taylor a greater opportunity to complete chunk plays in the air. This could also potentially help stretch the field to bring balance with a running game.
While Collins may give fans a flash of hope, there are too many flaws in their roster overall. Maybe their matchup against the Carolina Panthers is a chance to scrounge up more than just a couple of wins. Prediction: 3-14
Key Player: Quarterback – Carson Wentz
Player to Watch: Tackle – Eric Fisher
Record in 2020: 11-5
With the Colts’ previous season-ending just three points away from shocking the world by beating the Buffalo Bills in the Wild Card round, many fans pondered, “what if we had a more mobile quarterback than Philip Rivers”? In response to that, the front office, upon Rivers’ retirement, acquired former Philadelphia Eagle Carson Wentz.
While certainly a potential upgrade from recent starters, Wentz comes with uncertainty, as he’s likely to miss the start of the season due to a foot injury. He struggled mightily through 2020 before being replaced by Jalen Hurts. He deserved some criticism, but it’s easy to forget how the Eagles were decimated with injuries. This led to Wentz dealing with bone-crushing sacks and throwing to targets on the roster who were drafted late.
When Wentz returns, if he is supported with healthy wideouts like T.Y. Hilton and Michael Pittman Jr., a solid pen of running backs featuring Jonathon Taylor and Marlon Mack, and an offensive line boasting Quentin Nelson (who swears he will be recovered from his injury woes by Week 1) and Ryan Kelly, perhaps he can regain his confidence and lead his squad to a division title. In the meantime, second-year man Jacob Eason will be under center to start the season.
Additionally, the retirement of left tackle Anthony Castonzo poses a problem in the protection strategy. Sports Media Pass writer Dalton Tinklenberg offered his insight when we spoke on Beyond the Buzzer. “ If you don’t have something at left tackle, you’re in trouble. I think that’s what it going to come down to this year is whether or not they can keep Carson Wentz clean long enough to find some of these wide receivers out there on the field.”
The Colts have acquired former Kansas City Chief Eric Fisher to potentially fill the gap if he can come off the PUP list and claim the position.
The defense led by linebacker Darius Leonard, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and cornerback Xavier Rhodes has been stout, but they need a significant improvement in the pass rush to be elite. It seems they have pinned their hopes on rookies Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, to spark that effort.
The schedule is certainly more difficult than last year’s, which won’t help. They’ll have a worse record, but still be a playoff contender, which is still an accomplishment with this docket of opponents. Prediction: 8-9
Key Player: Quarterback – Trevor Lawrence
Player To Watch: Running Back – Travis Etienne
Record in 202: 1-15
This one’s pretty simple. How this team will fare in 2021 is most directly tied to their new head coach Urban Myer and this year’s first overall pick Trevor Lawrence under center.
Lawrence is fortunate enough to have a talented group of skill players in support. Marvin Jones and D.J. Chark make a solid pair of targets, with a committee of running backs that features James Robinson, Carlos Hyde and rookie Travis Etienne out of Clemson. With this group in the supporting cast and an interior line regarded as one of the best, this could be the makings of a much-improved offense.
However, defense appears to be the bigger concern at this point. While they still have Josh Allen as a pass rusher and have acquired Pro Bowler Shaquill Griffin as a corner, the days of “Sacks-onville” are but a fond memory. Former Big Cat Country writer Travis Holmes said on Beyond the Buzzer, “If they can get a defense that’s going to get to 14th to 21st (ranked) in the league or something along those lines, they can legitimately be a seven-win team just based on the defense improving to just that level.”
While Holmes’ defensive ranking and win total goals may seem modest, it’s worth mentioning that the Jags were 31st in points allowed last season. Potentially, if Lawrence lives up to the hype and the defense jumps up in performance, maybe a six-win improvement over last year isn’t farfetched.
Jags fans may rejoice that the Broncos, Cowboys and Bengals are the additional games on the schedule next to the relatively tough NFC West and AFC East. However, the schedule overall is still tough. Myer should be proud of achieving a four-win improvement because a team that finishes at that point is high enough in the draft to focus on building the defense. Final Prediction: 5-12
Key Player: Wide Receiver – Julio Jones
Player To Watch: Wide Receiver – A.J. Brown
Record in 2020: 11-5
With the Texans plummeting last year, the Titans managed to be the last man standing to win the AFC South. Perhaps the current defending champions are hoping to inspire improvement to the next level by acquiring a future Hall of Fame Receiver in Julio Jones from the Atlanta Falcons.
The skeptics would probably act like fans of this move don’t know that the Titans’ offense is focused on running the football with one of the league’s elite backs in Derrick Henry. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that grinding runners into the ground is a catastrophic strategy for a player’s career and the offense’s success. With that in mind, what better way to spread the field and set up play action pass opportunities than to bring in Jones?
Additionally, Henry also now takes fewer hits per carry since the defense can’t stack the box. It allows a game manager quarterback like Ryan Tannehill more opportunities for one-on-one coverage not only for his brand-new target, but for last year’s 1,000-yard receiver A.J. Brown, as well.
But when I asked The 3 Point Conversion’s NFL Writer and host of the Touring the AFC South Podcast Mike Patton on Beyond the Buzzer about this acquisition, he had this to say: “A lot of Titans fans already think that this team is in the Super Bowl. But obviously, they forgot that the defense actually has to get better this year first.”
Considering the Titans were 31st in passing yards allowed and 24th in points allowed, Patton may have a point. But there were some improvements on that side of the ball. Picking up defensive back Janoris Jenkins from the Saints as well as drafting Elijah Molden out of Washington will definitely improve the secondary. But what did Tennessee do to account for last year’s woeful pass rush?
The answer starts with former Pittsburgh Steeler Bud Dupree. While Dupree did post eight sacks in 11 starts in 2020, he is coming off of injury and is currently on the PUP List. If he gets healthy, he and former Indianapolis Colt Denico Autry certainly represent a significant upgrade. And while Tennessee spent 3rd and 4th round draft picks to add Georgia’s Monty Rice and Rashad Weaver out of Pitt, is it enough? Especially if they have to go through Kansas City to get to the Super Bowl.
So what does Patton think? “The biggest thing is the Titans secondary. If the Titans’ secondary can tighten things up (no pun intended) I can say this Titans team can definitely can contend for the AFC title.“
While my predictions put the Titans at the same win total as they had as of last year, the schedule they face compared to last year makes this an accomplishment. The NFC West will likely hand them most of their losses because of the prowess of their defenses. Their Week 7 against the Chiefs is a must watch to see a preview of a potential postseason battle. Prediction: 11-6